When a team starts the season 10-0 and looks unstoppable in the process, it's widely assumed that the team is a Super Bowl favorite, will have a bye, and will play at least one home playoff game. This is the story of the 2015 New England Patriots, but unfortunately the second half of the season was all about injuries to key players and they just weren't the same team over the final six games. The benefit of jumping out to a great record is that you can have a rough finish and still be the two seed, and with a little luck that worked out for the Patriots. There isn't another team in the playoffs that has sustained the amount of injuries New England has, but they've been able to make plays when needed to secure the desperately needed bye week.
New England is now recuperating and the top players that have been either banged up or just plain out will return for the divisional playoff game on Saturday, January 16th vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. Returning to the New England lineup will be wide receiver Julian Edelman, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, and defensive end Chandler Jones (most likely, but the latest issue could be a problem). Anyone else that is banged up (Tom Brady, Danny Amendola, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Rob Ninkovich, etc...) will also have time to allow their body to rest and be the healthiest they've been since Week One.
When breaking down the 2015 Patriots, you have to split the season into two- the first ten games and the last six games. When a team goes through the injuries New England endured, you have to take it into account when trying to project how they'll play when everyone returns. I went through and broke down five crucial statistical categories just to see how far New England dropped offensively, and it was shocking to see the difference. Let's take a look:
1st Ten Games:
32.3 Points P/Game
24.2 1st Downs P/Game
320.4 Pass Yards P/Game
92 Rush Yards P/Game
0.8 Turnovers P/Game
18.2 Points P/Game
19.9 1st Downs P/Game
252.6 Pass Yards P/Game
88.6 Rush Yards P/Game
1.4 Forced Turnovers P/Game
Last Six Games
23.7 Points P/Game
17.6 1st Downs P/Game
230.5 Pass Yards P/Game
80.7 Rush Yards P/Game
1.0 Turnovers P/Game
22.2 Points P/Game
17.3 1st Downs P/Game
221 Pass Yards P/Game
115.3 Rush Yards P/Game
1.2 Forced Turnovers P/Game
New England went from averaging over 32 points per game to just over 23, a huge drop-off for a team that expects to show up and score 30 points every week. The Patriots also dropped from 24 to 17 first downs per game, which happened to start the moment Julian Edelman fractured his foot. During that game, the Patriots struggled on third down and that was a sign of things to come over the final six games. Passing yards dropped from 320 to 252 per game and the running game dropped from 92 to 80 yards per game. Turnovers went up slightly on offense, but the real turnover issue New England dealt with was on punt returns, another area that the loss of Edelman stood out.
The injuries caused DRASTIC changes to the the Patriots offense, and they just weren't that good during the final six weeks. Edelman is one of the best third down receivers in the NFL and he also opens things up for Rob Gronkowski, so his loss from the offense had a major effect on everyone, not just Tom Brady. If you can't make plays on third down, there is a good chance your team will score less points, and that's exactly what happened to the Patriots offense. Edelman has already been cleared to play and he's been practicing for three weeks, so he'll be ready to go this coming Saturday and that alone makes the Patriots significant favorites over the scorching-hot Chiefs.
Defensively, things weren't quite as bad, but they definitely were affected by the losses of Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins (who missed almost a month with an unspecified illness) and the lack of offensive production. The defense actually improved in first downs allowed (19.9 to 17.3), passing yards allowed (252.6 to 221) and turnovers barely changed (1.4 to 1.2), but there were two areas they struggled in over the final six games- rushing yards allowed (88.6 to 115.3) and points allowed (18.2 to 22.2). Looking at these numbers makes it clear that teams knew they could run on New England when Hightower was out, so they took full advantage of the holes in the Patriots defense. When rushing yards allowed and points allowed are going up, that means the time of possession for the opponent is also going to go up, leaving Tom Brady and the Patriots offense on the sidelines, the place defensive coordinators want them to stay.
The Chiefs have also dealt with their fair share of injuries in 2015, and the one standout amongst the group is running back Jamaal Charles, a dynamic offensive talent who may be the best overall running back in football. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware have done a good job taking over, but neither of them comes close to what Charles brings to the offense and his injury has had a negative effect on the Chiefs offense, which was expected. Jeremy Maclin suffered a high ankle sprain vs. the Texans during the Wild Card round and there is no guarantee that he'll play Saturday either. The Chiefs are going to struggle to score just like they have all year, but the possible loss of Maclin is going to be huge for this very average Kansas City offense. Justin Houston, the Chiefs best defensive player, is also dinged up, but he is expected to play with a bulky knee brace on, which may slow him down a bit. Pass-rushers Tamba Hali (broken thumb) and Dee Ford (concussion) also practiced yesterday and are cleared to play on Saturday.
When you step back and look at the matchup, one thing is clear- if New England is truly healthy, they are clearly the better team and with all the doubt they've been hearing from the media, there is a good chance they come out with a chip on their shoulder. Last year's 41-14 loss is more fuel for the reigning champs, and it should also help the players and coaching staff find tendencies and areas that Kansas City is trying to exploit. Kansas City had a nice 11 game run against some of the worst teams in football, but that run is going to come to an end on Saturday when they go to Gillette to face the best team in the AFC.
After New England dispatches of Kansas City Saturday, the next step will be either going to Denver and facing Peyton Manning's Broncos or staying home to face Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers. Big Ben has a banged up shoulder and Antonio Brown is questionable with a concussion, but Denver tends to struggle against the Steelers and even though Manning is back, he still can't get the ball downfield accurately. Again, assuming the Patriots are healthy enough, they'll beat either one of these teams and advance to their ninth overall Super Bowl and seventh of the Belichick/Brady era.
New England defeated Pittsburgh to open the season and they lost to Denver in a game they were up 21-7 in the fourth quarter without Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski; I'm sure they're confident they can close the deal this time in Denver, and Pittsburgh simply can't stop Tom Brady. It's anyone's guess who will represent the NFC, but it won't matter because they'll be facing a team that was clearly the best in football for 11 weeks and has returned back to form just in time for another playoff run. A healthy Patriots team is by far the best team in football, and we will see that late Saturday afternoon when Tom Brady is slinging passes to his awesome mix of weapons
Patriot's fans get excited, because your team is going to be hoisting their fifth Lombardi Trophy in February and all the talk about cheating and deflated balls will disappear into the glow of Tom Brady's championship smile.
Follow me @ https://twitter.com/chris_simoneau